Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A Suitable Boy

This has the length and measured pace of a classic, without the brilliance of War and Peace, the passionate intensity of Gone With the Wind, or the sagaesque quality of House Divided. Begun in the middle of the action, finished likewise, it has a humdrum liveliness and a shrugging acceptance of everything from melted medals to murder that would be astounding, were it not so utterly familiar. As it is, without directly knowing either the era or the society it describes, you instantly recognise so many things, so many ways of thinking and acting and just being, that, as in Pagnol’s Topaze, your own world begins to unfold simultaneously with the ‘other’.

And yet, despite its impossibly good-natured calm, it is far from insipid. The deceptive simplicity of the style that sticks out its tongue at “show, don’t tell” and turns the whole almost into a dinner-with-aunties anecdote, sociopolitical criticism and all, tends to induce a similar mood of indulgent resignation in the reader. It is not possible to feel any very vehement emotion here; but you are always listening, half-curious, half-amused, as you might listen to a friend complaining about lost car keys or appalling in-laws. You are always interested, not so much in what might happen next, but in what is happening just then. And that is a rare and precious quality in a story.

Monday, 29 October 2018

I Write; Therefore ...

‘What are you doing?’

‘Nothing.’ She yanks down the lid of her laptop, holding on to the thread of her verse, blocking out the voice with her gritted teeth. But it takes the poem with it when it finally goes away. …

A shadow over her shoulder. ‘“Shizenade knelt down among the pomegranate trees and groaned” Aha!’ She slams down the lid so quickly, for a sickening moment she thinks she’s broken it.

‘Okay, okay!’ The shadow retreats, leeching out the lightening and the glory, and with tears burning in her throat she backspaces the whole suddenly worthless file. …

And then, just then – ‘hey, have you seen the nail-cutter? I can’t find – whoa, easy, I just asked you one question!’


The voices in her head entwine themselves around the gentle rhythm of the ghazal, until her poem enlaces it like a vine. And yet both soar at the same time free, mingling with the sounds of children playing outside, with birdsong and the thrum of cars in the distant road. The door is locked, the softly sputtering fan keeps the room cool, and there is no one to chide the disorder of her dress or correct her posture.

The words come swiftly, almost faster than her ecstatic fingers can churn them out. Later she may shake her head at most of this, roll her eyes … just now, it is perfect. The words come. Life is good.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Lasto Beth Lammen, O Ethuil ...

Enno onna enno enne.

I like watching your children die, O Spring.

When the leaves fell in the Autumn, gilded by age, I smiled to see them carpet the earth, remembering the glorious miracle of their birth, and thinking upon the rich green Summer of their youth. I welcomed the Winter of bare branches and snow that would teach my world to yearn for you to come among us again.

But this year, Winter came twice. And it has not yet stopped coming.

When the little leaves began to sprout, and the delicate little buds to peep out, Winter, greedy Winter, could not bear the thought of yielding its grip. So it sent down fresh flurries to smother your children in their sleep under its fiercely beautiful coconut-slices of snow.

I like watching your children die, O Spring.

I saw your friend the Wind take up arms against it then, shaking the branches free. Then you sent us once more the glorious dream of a Summer of strength and an Autumn of grace before we yielded to the inevitable Winter.

But winter is not done yet. Winter is here.

It is crushing your children to death again, swathing the world in white and strangling out every other colour from it. Winter is come for your blossoms, O Spring, and they must die before their time. Not for them the promised Summer of love and life and laughter, not for them the slow mellowing of Autumn, and the poignant beauty of bidding farewell to life. They shall be smothered in their cradles in the arms of their mother trees.

I like watching your children die, O Spring.

O Spring, will you still dare to come to us again, to trust your children to us? Know that we will do nothing for them. We will wind the wool tighter around our heads and let the white swathes smother them, over and over and over again.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Ameno Ameno Ameno

When first I climbed out into to this Land of do-as-you-please, it was an Inkdeath that I would fain have guarded against, for I deemed it quite inevitable: how can the Inkspell fail, thought I, when you spend more of your life within it than without? Lorenzaccio … but it was not so. This land remains the half-dream it always was, a Middle Earth one steps into for adventures, while that Land of the Lost scarce-glimpsed now from the top of the Magic Faraway Tree remains so starkly real, so starkly mine.

Every time I say a ‘Bonjour’ or hear one said to me, a voice at the back of my brain goes something like ‘Tintatintin. Studio 100, Page 97, Exercice 4, Dialogue 1’ ... Nothing matters quite so much here, or in quite the same way. People, places – there is a veil of words that makes them not-quite-real even though they be living flesh and stone. I suppose I might never have noticed this, had I not, for the space of a heartbeat, slid down the slippery-slip and out again into The Land of the Lost.

The food, the language, the grit, the stench – all of it springs completely, effortlessly into existence: what you say and what you do and what you are suddenly means something, because your own Fellowship is there. And then you go north, true North where the mountains are, and you know the Land of the Lost is forever your one vérité, even if everything in it cries out: “You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know it.” Of that city I call my own I know less than nothing – were I to live in it for another hundred years I would know less than nothing still – and yet it is my ‘real’ world to the core as no other place can be. To return to it is no Homecoming even, because it is easier than snapping a book shut and as complete as being Recalled to Life.

There lies our Kingdom of the Last Room, and the Fellowship of the Ring that was born within it, scattered now, yes, but not broken. There we have food, actual food: mangoes, biryani, barbeque, fish, naan-cholay, shwarma, siri-paye … this list goes on forever. And my books, my own Strong City of Stories, my fortress against everything: the memory of it must hold me sane now, and the knowledge that it is always all there for me, waiting … except, is it? Or will Time steal it from me while I dream?

I love this Magic-Faraway-Tree Land of mine. This is a story I want to read – and write – unto the very end, which I hope and pray will be as blest as the beginning. But I do wish I had the power to open and close the book upon it as I pleased – a Wishing Chair to carry me There and Back Again.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Shalt And Shalt Not

The current obsession with wrapping up and baring heads all over the world is a rather curious manifestation of the by-no-means-new tendency of some obscure ‘they’ or the other to go around decreeing how a woman not only should, but will dress – or else. ‘Should’ I can understand: everyone has the right to hold an opinion, to express it freely, and to try to convince other people of its truth. But the compulsion – this imposition of laws that turns a woman’s head into a battleground between one wretched -ism and another – every time I run into a rule of this description, j’en rage.

In this regard I hold exactly equal every law that demands a woman cover her head and every law that demands she uncover it. It is her head, geniuses, and her call. – Tun kaun? Mein khamkhwa – You cannot wriggle out of this one by dragging God into it, on either side. If you do believe that He gave us guidelines, you cannot except by wilful hypocrisy deny that He also left unto all man-kind AND woman-kind the choice to follow them or not, and reserved for Himself the judgement of their conduct. And if you do not, if you outlaw a veil upon the head as a ‘symbol of oppression’, etc. etc. – well, you might just as well ban pants while you are about it, because – say, because the Nazis wore them – and have done with it.

Is a woman’s freedom to decide whether a she winds a piece of cloth around her head or not such an impossible notion for the human race to grasp, men and women alike? How is it that a woman can zealously advocate for laws that forcibly place a veil on / strip a veil off another woman’s head, and not see that the ‘oppressors’ on the other side of the fence are people very much like her in essence, doing exactly the same thing? Men one may suspect of deliberate detachment here, or even malice aforethought; but how does a woman manage to not see that this is before everything else about the right of every woman to make her own choices, and that refusing that right to one woman threatens its very existence for all?

Do you remember the hijab-e-fitna parwar ghazal? Yet another instance of a man telling a woman what to do with her head – but it is counsel, or at worst reproach; it is not a law, and therefore let it bide … There is a line in it that rather applies to my case at present. ‘Tū is āñchal se ik parcham banā letī to achchhā thā’ … Only, in the worlds I know, the āñchal is best made into a flag by placing it upon one’s head, not by removing it.

But if I march forth bearing it as a banner, what exactly does it say? It has something to do with my culture and my country, though most of the people belonging to my homeland would be quite justly indignant if it were to be deemed representative of them. I sometimes call it ‘the hood of my religion’ – but my religion does not actually ask me to wear an āñchal. It only tells me to dress modestly, and a hoody or a bonnet are just as capable of covering my head as a scarf or a chador. So – for me at least, my wearing the dupatta on my head is above all my flag of the freedom to choose, to snap my fingers in the face of society and dress as I dashed well please.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Imprisoned Lightning

Once upon a time, there was a nation that dreamt of a land of the pure, with unity, faith and discipline as its watchwords. It turned into a land of the lost instead. But the dream - the dream lives on: as long as one soul remains to bear its lantern into the future, the dream will never die. Like its sister-dream of liberté, égalité, fraternité, which Eden itself would be hard put to realise, it may never find us worthy. But we dream of what we yearn to be, not of what we are, and that desire is what keeps us human in spite of ourselves.

All that is noble and blest is made up of such dreams, and among the most splendid dreams in history there was also this one :
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Never mind who first pinned this dream to paper, never mind if the nation that embraced these words for all the world to see ever truly 'meant' or 'deserved' it. Is there, has there ever been, a nation upon this earth that could look its past - or its present - in the face?

Dreams do not ask of us their guardians pure hearts and untainted souls. They only ask that when we look upon the bleak truth of our world and find ourselves forced to say, "Not yet" we smile and hoist their banners a little higher, whispering "Tomorrow is another day." So that the people of the world may smile also, and take up the echo of our whisper, to carry the dream beyond the sunset upon the wings of hope. Because when there is no one left to whisper the dream onward it must die.

And today I wonder - this song of the Mother of Exiles, must it now perish? Or are there still guardians left to stretch forth her beacon-hand? Will there be someone somewhere, today and tomorrow and a thousand years hence, who will catch up the banner of this most glorious and wistful of dreams?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Dragon will Soar

In the sunsoaked russet-green hills of Ycenna, in these pretty colinettes with twinkling green slopes cloaked ever so gently by winter, there is a contented exquisiteness of blue-green lakes and rivers the size of a rue. It is a world of plenty, fecund and joyous, in which the promise of ecstasy whimpers and dies unfulfilled.

I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains ... Here on the rim of this solicitously nursed chateau, the highest pinnacle this softly sloping land will afford me this day, I gaze down upon row after row of little boxes made ever so very charmingly out of the comeliest ticky tacky, and somewhere in the dragon-clouds upon the horizon the wild siren-song stirs.

Capricious, whimsical, they tease themselves into echoes of those sky-piercing crests, and fain would I leap forth now from this mould-dimmed rock, letting the wind cradle me until my wings are unfurled, ready to bear me hence.

To bear me unto the Once Upon a Time where true mountains dwelt, where one swore without irony to be good and noble and true for evermore. Where the dream-castles quakingly begun in the smoggy air of the plains became the only dwellings for our souls, so that afterwards when we returned to scurrying upon the belly of the earth our souls yearned for them, with a strangled inarticulate longing that did not know its own name.

I shall spread out my wings and sail into the sky, into the Beyond where no bus will take me, heedless at last of bookings and baguettes, far, far away from this staid cloying loveliness that rends my heart by its resemblance to the realm that it is not.

And there in that realm, in the glory and the lightening of the soul of the world, I shall cry out in chorus to its crescendo until every fibre of my being is attuned to its immortal quiver. An eagle prey to the sheer wildness of its castle, a dragon whose fire burns always within, consumed, become wholly a vessel of that supreme and unsurpassed beauty that will ravage the depths of its being, yet bring it a strange obliterating bliss of which easier, cheerier worlds know naught.

Over the sea, enormous, enticing, utterly alien, I will soar, and over the plains, lying placid and unremarked like bread underneath the pizza of the world; over deserts with the cruel sparse promise of a half-grown bud choked by thorns; over the forests with their abundance of danger and of delight – until I come finally upon my pine-tressed rivages scything their way right into the heavens.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

À l'éloge de la linguistique

‘Le signifiant n'est qu'un signe choisi arbitrairement, figé par la suite ; le signifié est d’ordre universel’ … voici la première notion linguistique que l’on m’a apprise, dans un monde que j’ai surnommé plus tard ‘La Force’ puisqu’il est devenu la pire des prisons. Un canard, m’a dit-on, est toujours le même animal, qu’on l’appelle canard ou duck ou بطخ.

D’accord … mais moi je suis plutôt dans le camp Anne Shirley que William Shakespeare, en ce qui concerne les roses et les choux. Une mangue, ce n'est pas du tout la même chose qu'un آم. Et l’آم de Delhi n'est pas du tout l’آم de Lahore … le langage humain est un labyrinthe tout à fait fascinante. Je m'appelle Hibah ; beaucoup de filles s'appellent Hibah, et elles sont toutes différentes ... D’ailleurs, si je ne m'appelais pas Hibah, serais-je toujours moi ?

Dès le début la linguistique m'a toujours fascinée autant qu'elle m'a révulsée, et par le même caractère complexe et abstrait, aussi frustrant qu’une mauvaise connexion Skype à travers laquelle on doit s’efforcer à concentrer pour saisir quelques petits morceaux du sens par parole. Mais elle sait devenir concrète, une fois dépouillée de son charabia. La linguistique contrastive, par exemple, ne me semblait d’abord servir à rien, jusqu’au jour où j’ai entendu dans le RER un enfant persanophone confondre ‘il’ et ‘elle’. Ses copains s'en rigolaient, et quelqu'un a remarqué que leur maîtresse commençait de s’exaspérer de cette erreur … ayant quelques bases du persan, j’ai compris tout de suite pourquoi elle s’est produite, mais aucun professeur ne peut apprendre toutes les langues du monde ! La linguistique contrastive présente une solution pour comprendre les interférences qui gênent l’apprentissage sans avoir à apprendre toutes les langues maternelles de vos étudiants. La linguistique peut être « utile » ; elle peut faciliter un peu la vie à un petit qui rougit et avale les larmes devant les plaisanteries de ses camarades …

Enfin je l’ai choisie, la linguistique. Je l’ai préférée à la littérature pour mes études universitaires et ma carrière, mon 'Half-Plate’ … Pour aider les autres à apprendre les langues que j’aime, faciliter la communication entre cultures, etc. ? … eh ben oui, ce n’est pas faux, tout cela… Mais c’était d’abord par lâcheté pure et simple.

La littérature exige une sincérité absolue : elle demande de ses disciples le courage de dire la vérité comme ils le voient et ne sait pas faire des compromis. Dire, écrire ou accepter passivement à propos de la littérature ce qu’on ne croit pas m’a toujours apparu comme le plus méprisable des crimes, une prostitution intellectuelle. La Force … Je suis sortie de là avec une médaille en or – mes trente deniers pour cette trahison et bien des autres – et un serment : plus jamais !

La linguistique, en revanche, je m’en fiche ; je me moque éperdument de ce qu’on me fait dire … Face aux terminologies linguistiques, je nage du plus beau, et je dois faire des grands efforts juste pour comprendre tous les -ismes et les -axes et les -ions. C’est presque une langue à part, ça, et je suis en train de l’apprendre avec la même curiosité quasi-enfantine. Si la professeure déclare qu'il y a désormais quatre groupes de verbes au lieu de trois, ok, je l'écris du bon cœur. Si elle est pour trois groupes, je déclare le quatrième la pire des hérésies sans aucune hésitation. La liberté de m'exprimer librement sur le sujet est vivement appréciée, mais je ne me sens pas étouffée et obligée à protester dès qu’on m’impose une autre opinion… En tout cas, personne ne saura utiliser les terminologies linguistiques pour m’avilir, pour me faire trahir mon moi.

Ainsi la linguistique, abstraite, distante, sèche, devient mon sanctuaire, ma tour d’ivoire qui me permet d’insérer une couche épaisse de terminologies et phraséologies et toutes les autres -ologies du monde entre moi et l’academia, ce milieu qui me fait bouillir par son ‘scum factor’ et son élitisme de guilde médiévale, mais qui reste le seule à pouvoir parler pendant des heures des idées passionnantes et parfaitement éloignées de toute « réalité ».

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Aoi, Aoi, Ano Sora ...

I walk along your rues and avenues and boulevards, until I stand beside the indus-staid waters watching the swans float past within inches of my outstretched fingers. Was it here that they stood, les misérables of old? Did your people come down to whisper only to drown their sorrows, or did they tell you happy secrets too? Do you remember them too as I stand here thinking of them, the children of that 'old world' far further upon the road to oblivion here in their own patrie than in mine?

You are achingly beautiful, and I am glad you are to be my home for a space, though many of your children would fain have none of me. Here, O Capital of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Indifference, I am become The Hooded Stranger. I run the soft red cloth wound around my head through my fingers, and I wonder, is this all it takes to turn me into the sort of person mothers yank their children away from?

And yet - If I am not accepted I am at any rate endured. I am here. I walk your streets, eat of your fruit, board your trains alone. I study in halls of learning themselves a legend. The decree of silence and solitude your people pronounce upon me brings with it a new sort of freedom, as terrifying as it is exhilarating. So I sing my ghazals under my breath en flanant dans les rues, one more piéton, serene in the knowledge that the half-glares cast over shoulders at me have nothing to do with me, with the actual person beneath the hood of my religion and the brown skin of my race.

You are beautiful, and I love to look upon you, upon your bridges and archways and turrets and intricate little patterns scattered upon doorways like petrified confetti. Most of all I like your stone people, who dress more like me than the real ones, and do not flinch when I stop to say Hello. I can talk to them at least without fear of giving offence. Your flesh-and-blood people, are they ever not in a hurry? Do they ever laugh? Smile? Just not look awfully tired and edgy and broken-inside-but-holding-up?

I look upon your blue skies streaked with white, shivering a little like me in the chill breezes of imminent winter, and I remember another sky that the sun has not yet deserted. I walk past the restos and cafés, and I try to invest them with the smell of barbeque on the coals, of steaming hot biryani, of a freshly made kulcha just pulled out of the oven. Already they are fading from sensation to memory, acquiring a touch of sepia, the haziness of things from a Once-upon-a-time land.

Soon, your language will begin to take hold of me. I begin to exclaim ah non and Mon Dieu and pétard. I find myself thinking in your tongue when I walk through your streets, translating back into my own languages and into Epfel. I think of my family and imagine them here, picture them walking up and down endless flights of stairs to catch a metro and laugh at their expressions ...

And, O mine own Land of the Lost, when I am come home at last to you, after ages that seem now beyond mortal accounting, shall I look upon you with a stranger's eyes, judging, criticising, mourning this other world I lived in for a little while? Shall I say, like so many others before me, "You know, over there, people would never be allowed to ..." "You know, over there, they never throw ..."

How long before I transition from horribly homesick to heartily sick of home? How long before I begin to fret and count the days left to the next adventure?

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

New Lamps for Old

If Marcus Tullius Cicero had known that he was to become ‘Tully’ in one of the most prestigious works of literary criticism ever, would he have laughed? Or would he have waxed apoplectic at this most noble Apologie? For my part, I shall never manage to think of Mr Chips's 'Kikero' now, without remembering the Blackfish of Riverrun ...

Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie – we read it with admiration and respect and much enjoyment, for Sidney has a delightfully waspish turn of phrase one comes to relish. Nonetheless, if someone wrote this now, they would have to apologise for it, belike. Imagine a scholar today pronouncing as a defence of poetry in the hallowed halls of the academia, “Poetry is the companion of camps”! or that poetry is better than history, not so much because of the rather neatly reasoned argument given, but because ‘see here, Aristotle says so too! Aristotle himself!’ No, come to think of it, the second case probably would still be politically correct. It’s Aristotle after all. Aristotle of the Poetics. The Aristotle. Now who shall dare argue with him?

Aristotle never argues. He never tries to prove himself right. Perhaps because the existence of a dissenting view never seems to occur to him? He issues a series of statements, he condescends to elaborate, he derives therefrom a decree. Is that why so many accepted everything he said as truer than gospel for so long? Because he did not doubt himself, did he effectively take away from his readers the ability to doubt him? T.S. Eliot pulls off the same kind of exploit with his ‘Tradition and The Individual Talent’. It has the same absolute certainty about it, and one may say, more than a degree of the same insularity... In his emphasis on the tradition of ‘Europe and his own country’ did Eliot leave the rest of the world out of it because he simply never thought about it, or because it did not matter enough to be considered?

When it comes to most texts of philosophy or criticism – texts that tell you what you should be doing – it is well to keep something of Hawkeye’s distrust of the written word always within one. For the reader, layman or scholar, is the most vulnerable of all creatures when he opens a book of renowned wisdom. He will absorb and applaud the most woeful of inanities, provided they be deemed ‘wise’, and even if a doubt should creep in – who shall say that the Emperor has nothing on? Especially as these emperors do have clothes, albeit with gaping holes in them.

Aristotle does have one quality, moreover, for which the not-so-erudite reader is inexpressibly grateful to him: he is nearly always clear, which is more than one can say of his modern brethren – and sistern too. Does modern literary criticism have to be worded so very peculiarly? As a rule I would be the last person to object to words being spun every which way, but when words become nearly insuperable hindrances to the communication of important ideas, we need to recognise that we have a problem.

How is this to be resolved? I have not the foggiest notion. I would paraphrase the ‘guilty’ texts more simply, I suppose, if I could figure them out, but so many have done that already, and I am not sure how that helps anyway, since everyone must return sooner or later to the convoluted originals. Me, I’m poking warily at the edges with the ten-foot pole of legend, wondering what the deuce I am going to do about them. So – a request to the academe: take a leaf out of Mr Micawber’s book. Expound upon aught ye please in the most pontifical periods, but then render the sense thereof in the tongue of the commons – in short, once you are done with the unintelligible terminology, please do tell us what you are trying to say in words fit for us mere mortals.

On the other hand, it may well be that the clarity of Aristotle can be attained only at the price of one’s ability to doubt, to torment oneself with what-ifs that open up new branches at every step upon the path. I say ‘the clarity of Aristotle’ but perhaps it is to the translator that I owe this, and not to him at all? But then, every word of Aristotle, Goethe, Tolstoy or Ibsen that I read, I owe to a translator. Even if I learnt to read the original, it could never mean as much to me as a text in English. Yet, I will never know the translator. Even if I run into his or her name somewhere, I just won’t care enough to find out more. We substitute whichever translation we happen to pick up first for the original, and there’s an end to the matter, even if the Princess Anna Arkadievna Karenina is reduced to ‘Mrs. Anna Karenin’ thereby, and Yermolai Alexeievitch transformed to ‘Alexander’ Lopakhin. The horror! The horror!

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Shadow Upon The Iron Giant

Should something a poet or a writer could have said or done or have been influence your reading of his or her works, especially when the source of all such information is the garbled testimony of people now dead? People you never actually knew, with their own lives and lies? What difference is there between ‘tall, proud, graceful’ and ‘towering, arrogant, mincing’ save a touch of jaundice in the beholder’s eye?

And yet, having read things about people you cannot unread them. Take Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for instance. Sylvia Plath I never knew without knowing also that she was dead by her own hand, but Ted Hughes I first read in school, when the writer’s name is nothing more than a squiggle under the title no one really cares tuppence about. His ‘Hawk Roosting’ was the first non-rhyming poem I ever learnt to like ... And now the shadow of Sylvia, Assia, Shura, falls across it, and the hawk’s clear piercing gaze has a touch of the vulture about it. Even across the Iron Giant the shadow falls ...

Who shall say how the case really stood, looking on from outside, so many years later? And yet the shadow falls, whether you will or no. The shadow of Sylvia, taping a note to a pram, leaving out milk and bread, sealing the kitchen with towels and tape – did she use scissors to snip it off the roll, or her teeth? The shadow of Assia, writing There could never be another man. Never, then mimicking the ghost that haunted her. And Shura. Most of all, Shura. The little girl who went to sleep in her mother’s arms and never woke up. They fell upon everything, the shadows, once I knew, and I have never since managed to cast them off.

Sylvia Plath I never got to read without the shadow. It’s the first thing they tell you about her, that she stuck her head in an oven and killed herself because she was ‘depressed’. She was my first literary suicide. Before that I had never known a writer who had killed herself or himself. I didn’t know writers did that, since to me writing, even at eighteen, was the safety valve, the road back to one’s sanity when life had chipped away at it a little too much. As long as you could eat and laugh and read and write, surely you could never quite bring yourself to kill your self off forever?

I wish I could read them, both of them, just once, without the shadow. A selfish wish, perhaps even a callous one, but I really wish I could read Thought Fox and Hawk Roosting and The Iron Giant without ‘Sylvia, Assia, Shura ... Sylvia, Assia, Shura ...’ running through my head like potato-blight. I wish I could read Ariel without thinking ‘She put her head in the oven, and she died. She could write splendidly, gloriously and she had children she loved who were one and three, but still she died, she put her head in the oven and she died...’

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Ce que j’ai appris en enseignant le français

Aujourd’hui, je vais tacher de faire une « auto-évaluation formative », en quelque sorte, de ce que j’ai appris (jusqu’à maintenant) en enseignant le français. Ma vie active de professeur a commencé quelques semaines seulement après le présentiel du DUFLE. J’ai assisté à un cours à AFL pendant quelques mois, pour observer et apprendre (le cours B2 enseigné par Mme Asmah Hayat), puis on m’a confié le cours de préparation pour le DELF A2. C’était ma première classe, quoique j’aie déjà donné quelques cours privés à l’Alliance.

J’ai eu de la chance : j’ai commencé à enseigner dans la même institution où j’ai appris le français, en profitant de conseils de mes profs et anciens camarades de classe, dans un environnement où on m’a tous et toutes beaucoup aidé et encouragé, en me donnant du matériel et ses conseils avec une générosité émouvante. Au même temps, on m’a donné beaucoup d’indépendance. J’ai préparé moi-même les cours, choisi et implémenté les exercices en classe, sans entraves ni retenue mais pas sans aide. Je tiens à en remercier surtout le directeur, M Scobry, et Mme Asmah.

Grace aux modules du DUFLE déjà étudiés, à l’habilitation examinateur-correcteur DELF, et à l’expérience de plusieurs sessions de DELF à l’alliance, j’avais déjà en tête une idée très claire des objectifs linguistiques, socioculturels, communicatifs, des critères d’évaluation etc., et j’ai pu préparer un plan d’action assez faisable pour mon groupe de douze étudiants venus un peu de partout : un prof à la retraite, quelques collégiens, des femmes au foyer, des jeunes employés, et même un étudiant étranger, âgés de 14 à 60 ans. Théoriquement, en deux semaines – 24h – je devais les préparer au DELF A2. Si la majorité voulait passer le DELF, il y en avait aussi ceux qui venaient pour reprendre contact avec la langue après deux ans, ou pour le simple plaisir de rester en contact avec le français pendant qu’ils attendaient le commencement du prochain cours de langue.

De ce groupe hétérogène, je devais forger une « classe », un groupe de camarades prêt à travailler collectivement aussi bien qu’à titre individuel. Ai-je réussi ? Qu’à moitié ... La courte durée du cours n’y est certainement pour rien. Pourtant, je ne peux pas nier que cela dépendait aussi de moi, et que je ne suis pas, au fond, une personne très sociable. J’aime regarder la vie du loin, rester dans ma zone de confort et regarder les autres agir comme « des ombres chinoises projetées sur un rideau ». Or le métier du professeur vous oblige à interagir avec les autres, et pas toujours selon vos termes. On choisit ses amis ; on ne choisit pas ses étudiants. L’enseignant ne peut pas s’enfermer dans sa tour d'ivoire et jeter du savoir par les fenêtres, s’il se trouve mal à l’aise ! Il doit sortir de sa zone de confort, il doit tout gérer, tout harmoniser. Rester détaché et neutre, comme le fait un examinateur, ce n’est pas trop difficile, mais être engagé et neutre à la fois, ce n’est pas facile pour moi, surtout lorsque j’ai du mal à séparer mes réactions personnelles de mes réactions d’enseignant. Je dois m’entrainer pour trouver l’équilibre juste qui me permet à devenir un bon professeur, sans pourtant renoncer à ma propre personnalité et mes propres gouts !

Heureusement, je n’ai pas vraiment eu de souci en faisant la discipline. Après mes cinq petits frères, les étudiants, même les gamins, me semblaient étonnamment sages et prêts à travailler, les pauvres ... La patience, cependant, c’est une autre qualité que j’ai besoin de cultiver ; la patience de répéter et reformuler un élément tout simple plusieurs fois si nécessaire, la patience de laisser faire les étudiants sans tomber dessus même quand ils font des erreurs. Oh, je l’ai fait de mon mieux, en me collant encore aux principes appris de mes propres professeurs et renforcés pendant le présentiel du DUFLE, mais parfois aussi en jurant en punjabi entre les dents ... Je m'énerve facilement, et les apprenants ont dû le ressentir, même si je m’efforçais à rester calme et souriante. Enfin, jouer « le bon prof » à contrecoeur, ce n’est pas un remède, et je me rends compte qu’il me reste beaucoup de travail à faire pour entrer vraiment dans l’état de l’esprit d’un bon enseignant.

En devenant professeur, on apprend à s’effacer, à se dire « La vedette, ce n’est plus moi ». Voici ma « découverte » la plus bouleversante, la plus déséquilibrante. Cela apparaitra assez évident, peut-être, à l’enseignant expérimenté, mais aucune formation, aucune observation ne m’a révélé cet aspect doux-amer de l’enseignement. Dans ma vie étudiante, (même quand j’étudie pour devenir professeur), l’acteur principal, c’est toujours « moi ». Je sais que ce sont « mes » bonnes notes, acquises par « mon » effort, qui vont signaler « mes » réussites, « mes » triomphes. Dans une classe, on s’entre-aide, on partage ses connaissances et ses ressources : mais à la fin, on passe l’examen seul, on réussit grâce à ses propres capacités. On rêve toujours d’avoir « sa » classe à enseigner ... Le professeur, en revanche, n’est plus l’acteur principal de sa classe. Il n’est plus qu’un guide, et le guide qui arrive tout seul à la destination a évidemment échoué sa mission ; il n’a pas vraiment « réussi » sauf s’il a pu amener sains et saufs les voyageurs confiés à lui. Ainsi le professeur : ses rêves, ses gouts – son « moi » – passent à l’arrière-plan, deviennent forcement auxiliaire, puisque ce qui compte vraiment, c’est les étudiants, leurs styles d’apprentissages, leurs besoins (qui peuvent varier d’une façon assez frustrante au sein d’un même groupe), et enfin, leur réussite. Le professeur ne peut non plus manipuler ses étudiants comme des marionnettes pour assurer leur réussite. Il doit les enseigner, les guider, les encourager – et finalement, leur faire confiance. Pour moi, égoïste et perfectionniste, la pilule est parfois difficile à avaler.

Mais je ne me décourage pas, parce qu’il y a aussi le souvenir du plaisir mal caché d’une dame âgée quand on lui dessine une étoile sur son cahier, du sourire qui éclaircit le visage d’un enfant qui réussit à construire spontanément une phrase complète en français pour la première fois, de la fierté et la joie qu’on ressent en tant que professeur, quand on voit ses élèves améliorer leur niveau sous ses yeux ; se transformer, lentement mais assurément, par leurs efforts et par les siens en locuteurs indépendants d’une nouvelle langue. Rien que pour cela, il vaille la peine de devenir un « prof de français » digne du nom, et digne de ses étudiants.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Canterbury Tales: Usborne

Quite the most readable version of the 'Tales I've ever come across, very decidedly not excluding 'Master Chaucer's' own from the list. As such, it makes a very welcome addition to the book-friends of this eternal don't-quite-wanna-be of English literature, who must always peer suspiciously at the original, the cursor winking slyly from the Google search bar, fingers hovering over the keyboard to type in yet another obscure whym-wham ...

Oh sure, it misses out most of the racier parts - not such a bad idea anyway :-p - and rather more regrettably, blunts or clips the subtleties of Chaucer's ironic commentary. It is not, whatever the adverts may say, for 'children'; any reasonable parent advisory must declare it PG13 at the very least. It does, however, mash Chaucer's roast lamb, spiced delicately and done to a turn, into a boiled-potato salad that can be scarfed down with a minimum of effort. In that sense it is for 'children', be they fourteen or forty-five.

Not that it doesn't have its moments. It's not Chaucer, agreed; but that's the whole point of it, isn't it? Here the humour, even the irony, is more in a hohoho lame-troll mode:
... "I always said astrology was dangerous - and now this! Do you remember that fellow - what was his name?""
"George, was it?"
"Yes, that's it, he studied the stars. He went out one night, walked across a field, all the time staring up at the sky, and what do you think happened?"
"He fell headfirst into a claypit. That's what astrology can do to you. It's evil, Robin, and it must be stopped. Fetch me my staff. We must go and save his soul." ...

I suppose the best way to describe the Chaucer-Usborne gap is to compare it to the difference between the book of Deathly Hallows and the movies. Enjoy the show, but do not confound it with the original.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Meat-Poison Cliché

"And so it was that Smith realised, after years uncounted in the wilderness, that putting mayonnaise on roast beef was wrong. It had come to him slowly, as slowly as oil leaking out of dinosaur bones."

The sources, I fear, are quite hopelessly lost; but I do recall that the second line is from a free self-help ebook of some sort, and the first from a writing manual which was holding it up to demonstrate how not to write. And I remember thinking to myself: 'Dear Lord, if only I could write like that, I would never again ask you for anything.' A trifle fervid perhaps, the declaration. But the meat-poison cliche does come to mind.

Messieurs-dames the self-appointed Guardians of Writing, what ye shun as meat I welcome as poison. Come, O noble rhyme, thou outcast soul of true poesy. Come, adjectives, adverbs, cliches, long sentences, trite similes, mixed metaphors; come, my dear old friend the passive voice ... Let our Last Castle be built with mangoes and chocolate and ice-cream, and endure upon that sable shore where the only ink that can whet a pen is the heart's own blood. Let it there endure, unto the calamitous day the sun rises in the West.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Redress of Poetry

Seamus Heaney 1939 – 2013
Oxford Lectures (1995)
A capricious and arbitrary analysis of the first of this series of lectures

“Heaney discusses and celebrates poetry’s special ability to redress balance and to function as a counter-weight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world” (Book Blurb)

The Redress of Poetry sets out, in its own words, ‘to show how poetry’s existence as a form of art relates to our existence as citizens of society – how it is ‘of present use’. Whether the lecture serves this ‘present use’ ascribed unto itself or not, we shall endeavour in due course to determine: suffice it for now to say that it is surely of present delight.

The general tone of this discourse is necessarily philosophical, its content reflection of no mean weight. So what saves it from becoming pedantic and ‘boring’ for the most general of French-cheese-lays-crunching general readers? Well, a profusion of well-bestowed adjective, to begin with: most of the lines here lilt the impressively rolling periods of the academe right out of the window. Here we have ‘the dead-pan cloudiness of the word-processor’, ‘Herbert’s daylight sanity and vigour’, and such wonderfully-worded commentaries as ‘poems which seem so perfectly set to become perpetual-motion machines can find ways of closure and escape from their own unfaltering kinesis’. This is ‘lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane’ that cannot fail to captivate.

The lecture professes to express ideas necessarily profound and frequently paradoxical: yet a book-blurb may quite neatly summarise the essence withal. How comes this about? How is obscurity here banished from the academic lecture, over which it generally asserts dominion as a right, if not as a duty? Clarity of vision and the strength of the author’s convictions may have something to do with it: but we must admit that the curious felicity of the writing owes itself above all to the author’s meticulous planning and ruthless pruning of inanities. Hard work has been done, and it reveals itself in the readiness with which the discourse may be perused.

This carefully-crafted clarity doubtless contributes to the peculiar fluidity of this lecture – peculiar, because it weaves, meanders, saunters, dashes whither it will, according to an internal rhythm all its own. Perhaps the mingling of the written and the spoken word holds the secret. A lecture, after all, is but a discourse written down in order that it may be spoken aloud. Few lectures engage the reader in dialogue quite as this one does – dialogue in very truth, an it please you.

“‘He was a man who used to notice such things,’ say the neighbours, on this side of the frontier. ‘Which things?’ asks the reader, and from the other side the poem answers ... ‘Anything else?’ says the reader. ‘Blackness, mothy and warm,’ says the poem. ‘The full starred heaven that winter sees’, things like that. ‘My God!’ says the reader.” Now this is an invitation to dialogue far more subtle and intimate than the shrilly insistent ‘Look well, O wolves, look well!’ to be found in some lectures. Others, enwrapped in lofty purpose, bid the reader hie to the scullions’ entrance, and amble on through page after page in bewigged complacency. Heaney succeeds in avoiding these extremes, and strikes a happy mean that serves to redress a little of the balance of the lecture, at the very least.

For a note of dissatisfaction, stifled by awe of the anon and the many excellences of the lecture, does tend nonetheless to persist. At the end of the lecture, we emerge defiantly convinced that while this may be one part of the poetic truth, one way of looking at poesy, it cannot be all of it. This would hardly require such belligerent assertion, if only the lecture did not so unabashedly assume ‘a wonderful logical and psychological self-sufficiency’ – a description culled from Heaney himself, though quoted brazenly out of context. As it is, the very certainty which facilitates comprehension and lends such pleasing strength to the style begins to ruffle our feathers rather, when we return for a closer scrutiny of the content. The sheer authorial cheek of the man, inviting us to share his ideas one moment, and assuming that we do share them the next! Where is his “’My God!’ says the reader” now, eh? Where the preaching professor overrides the poet-philosopher, he tends to get on our literary nerves, even when we do agree with what he is saying.

For he does often speak sooth, the good professor. Poetry as it ‘offers a response to reality that has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit ... tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium’ by being ‘a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances’ is a beautiful thing to muse over. The political relevance of poetry, its compatibility with political activism, especially where writers have ‘internalised the norms and forms of the tradition from which they wish to secede’, constitute aspects of our post-thingy reality which we cannot escape contemplating.

And yet, at some especially whimsical fundamental level, we resent Heaney for writing this ‘Redress’ of poetry. If one is to go about redressing things, why does it always have to be ‘an apologie for poetrie’? Must it always be the poet who shame-facedly shuffles his feet and says “Ah yes, it is poetry, but it is ‘of present use’, you know.” Or else, with pathetic defiance: “Confound you all, poetry rules! It is ‘of present use’, so go kill yourselves!” Why must poetry beg for the right to breathe?

More literature than philosophy and more poesy than prose, this lecture does not – cannot – serve to redress poetry, for poetry has scant need of redress. It will, however, serve right well to turn the most prosaic of readers into a convicted poet, for the space of that one eventide.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A National Song in Epfel!

"Nakushita has national songs aplenty, but there’s not one in Epfel. Not one that I can find."

I wrote this once upon a time - and not such a very long time ago either. As it turns out, I was wrong. There are national songs for Nakushita in Epfel. 

Some are by foreigners, some by émigrés and the children of émigrés - but there are also some by those who have lived here every day of their lives and shall live out every day of the rest here too. Some are paeans, some are laments, some frenzied apologies, laden with half-a-century of vicarious guilt all rinsed off in a rhyme. Some of them are genuine poetry, others genuinely cringe-worthy - 

But they do exist. So, henceforth, I shall say: "Nakushita has national songs aplenty, but there’s not one in Epfel. Not one that I can write."

Or, better still: " ... Not one that I can write. Yet."

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Une vie en langues

Imaginez, si vous pouvez, un enfant qui entend chaque jour les gens (y compris sa propre grand-mère) parler le paivari autour de lui, mais qui n’a point le droit de parler cette langue, qu’on désignera plus tard sa langue maternelle. L’auka’ilu n’est pas formellement interdit, mais il ne faut pas le parler qu’avec des serviteurs, des invités, des voisins, etc. ; au sein de la famille, avec ses parents, ses frères et ses sœurs, il doit toujours parler l’epfel. S’il chante les chansons paivaries que sa grand-mère fredonne, on lui regarde d'un mauvais œil. Si, en revanche, il apprend à balbutier quelques strophes d’un poème en epfel, on lui sourit et on lui donne des bonbons. L’epfel devient donc la langue de ses premiers souvenirs heureux, la langue des contes et des comptines de sa toute petite enfance.

Puis il va à l’école, et les contradictions inhérentes dans cette politique linguistique pragmatiste commencent à troubler son esprit. La même enseignante qui lui dit que sa langue maternelle est le paivari, que sa langue nationale est l’auka’ilu et que l’epfel n’est que la langue des anciens colonisateurs britanniques, l’oblige à ne parler qu’en epfel pendant son cours ... L’epfel, la langue de sa scolarisation et la seule langue qu’il est capable de parler avec assurance, n’est plus « sa » langue ; elle est devenue langue « seconde ». Mais « ses » langues lui restent étrangères et toujours quasiment interdites. Il se pose la question quelquefois, peut-être il ose la poser à ses parents ou à ses professeurs : puis, l’adolescence passée, il laisse tomber. Il accepte son monde comme il est, et il s’y adapte. Il a grandi.

Cet enfant, il a de la chance. Il est en train d’acquérir une « bonne » éducation – la meilleure que ses parents peuvent lui acheter. Il parle couramment l’epfel, et on reconnaîtra tout de suite qu’il est « quelqu’un », qu’il appartient de naissance à une élite qui à droit à tout. Il aura la possibilité de réaliser une bonne carrière, ou il développera à son tour « le business de Papa » qu’il héritera un jour. Il deviendra donc soit médecin, soit ingénieur, soit avocat, soit homme d’affaires. Quant aux langues – fin, il acquerra assez de paivari pour communiquer lors de taches habituels, il apprendra à lire et à écrire l’auka’ilu (comme un B1+ au maximum), et il suivra des cours pour savoir lire (sans y comprendre un seul mot) l’arabe. Après – fin, il suivra peut-être les cours de chinois, de français où d’espagnol, selon la mode.

Est-ce qu’il vivra heureux ? Mais oui, pourquoi pas ? Il aura une grande maison dans un beau quartier, deux où trois voitures – en somme, il pourra s’offrir toutes les luxes du monde. Les coupures de l’électricité ne troubleront jamais son repos. Il râlera contre la corruption, tout en offrant et en acceptant des gros pots de vin ; il plaindra la condition des classes pauvres et moyennes tout en pressent ses employés comme des citrons. C’est navrant, bien entendu, et il faut changer tout ça : mais enfin, c’est ce qu’il faut faire pour survivre dans ce pays pourri, n’est-ce pas ?

Pourtant, il écrira pieusement des grands chèques aux organisations charitables, afin d’apaiser sa conscience, (et afin de devoir payer moins d’impôts). Sa femme travaillera pour des O.N.G. les plus connues, tous les grands quotidiens feront l’éloge de sa bonté et de sa charité, alors qu’elle continue à maltraiter sa petite bonne, habillée en loques, âgée au plus de douze ans. Ses enfants, qui n’auront pas le droit (où même l’envie) de parler une autre langue que l’epfel chez eux, qui n’auront jamais connu le besoin et la misère, regarderont les enfants du peuple traîner leurs chaussures cassées dans les rues où ils roulent en Honda, avec un étonnement qui se transformera vite en mépris et en indifférence, et rigoleront au nez de leur discours bizarre. Ils deviendront à leur tour des bons citoyens dignes de leurs parents, parlant l’epfel comme des américains, et leurs « propres » langues avec une maladresse dédaigneuse.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Khuda Ki Basti

Of my world and yet most emphatically not of my world, this is the first Urdu novel I've read as a novel - without awkwardness, without the consciousness of reading an 'Urdu' book especially, with a grim and futile determination to 'improve my level of Urdu'.

No, this book I read in a day and half, as I would have read any English or French novel of the same length which I liked particularly well. I understood about seven to eight of every ten words, but I pushed on regardless, because the story had me quite inexorably in its grip.

In retrospect, I do not understand. Why do I like this book? The setting is Zola-ishly wretched (and I don't generally like Zola), and the storyline, objectively viewed, is not a little clichéd. Perhaps the magic lies in the style? Of that I am no fit critic; it works for me, voila tout.

As for clichés, well. Cinderella is a cliché, Snow white is a cliché, Baba Yaga is a cliché, and they are all awesome stories. Perhaps clichés do become clichés for a reason.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

La chanson de l’émigrée

O patrie jadis belle et rayonnante
O patrie bienaimée de fous perdus
O patrie écrasée, patrie pleurante!

O ma patrie, qu'est-ce que je raconte
À ces enfants qui ne t'ont pas connu?
O patrie jadis belle et rayonnante!

Que raconter, o ma patrie mourante,
À ces pauvres qui ne t'ont pas vu?
O patrie écrasée, patrie pleurante!

Navrée, déchirée, je leur chante
De la gloire que tu n'as jamais eue
O patrie jadis belle et rayonnante!

Comment avouer, o ma patrie agonisante
Comment leur dire que tu es fichue?
O patrie écrasée, patrie pleurante!

O ma patrie assommée, je leur chante
D'un toi tu n'aurais point reconnu
O patrie jadis belle et rayonnante!
O patrie écrasée, patrie pleurante!